‘May the Flame You Carry Illuminate Your Way’

A Hong Kong professor's open letter to her boycotting students expresses hope -- and fear -- for their future.

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Getty Images

On Monday, September 22, I sat with you outside the library of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The weeks before had felt quiet: at the three previous all-student meetings around the replica of 1989 Tiananmen Square’s Goddess of Democracy statue, you listened respectfully to guest speakers: past student union presidents, a student who had been arrested on July 1, Leung "Longhair" Kwok-hung, a prominent activist from Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats Party.

So I was surprised when I arrived at the campus plaza that afternoon. Under a relentless summer sun, 13,000 of you filled the entire campus mall. On the impromptu stage, white banners read, "Student Boycott, Take a Stand!" and "Be the master of Hong Kong’s future!" You bore brightly-colored flags that bobbed in the sunlight. Throughout the afternoon a "Democracy Wall" plastered with hand-written messages rose at the far end of the crowd; some of the messages simply supported the strike and Hong Kong’s democracy, some you filled with righteous indignation: "The National People’s Congress has seized our right to universal suffrage…you are not the emperor!"

These messages articulated why you had joined the rally to kick-off a week of student class boycotts. Though Hong Kongers had been promised universal suffrage to elect their next Chief Executive in 2017, in late August Beijing’s legislature the National People’s Congress outlined a definition of "democracy" that you find unacceptable: only candidates vetted by committee, and only those suitably "patriotic," would be allowed on the ballot. Thus your banners read, "Oppose colonialism and oppose pre-screened election," and you chanted, "The People’s Congress does not represent me!"

I am inspired by your words. To begin the rally, Alex Chow and Lester Shum from the student group Hong Kong Federation of Students declared that you were there as Hong Kongers — as the future of Hong Kong society. They affirmed that Hong Kong society had to be awakened, that Hong Kong must be the master of its own future. Shum described Hong Kong’s present as colonialism, ruled from the ground by its tycoons and from afar by the Communist Party. Today, he argued, you take back Hong Kong’s future. 

I am inspired by the way you understand your role in society. After Chow and Shum’s speeches, a group of you stepped forward to explain why you have joined the movement. You told us that you study social work, you described extreme inequality in Hong Kong — people living in human cages, and you said that you defend social justice. Your words echoed down the length of the plaza and reflected the writing on the "Democracy Wall" of the medical sciences building: "Medicine is fundamentally a revolution: above, it heals the nation, among us it heals people, below it heals the illness."

I am inspired by your ability to teach yourself, as you organized activities following the rally and moved downtown to a week-long boycott in Tamar Park, near the offices for the Hong Kong government. I went to the teach-in and saw your mini-university of simultaneous lectures, in the park’s amphitheater. You were taking assiduous notes. You broke into groups and talked about the meaning of direct action, of civil disobedience, of protest. You wrote to tell me how the boycott made you understand society more deeply, and I smiled when you confessed that it was a superficial understanding, that you would have to read more books to combine theory with practice. What teacher would not be filled with joy to watch his students seize learning so independently, so concretely, and with such passion? If we shed tears at this moment it was because we saw how you did not need us anymore, you could learn and act on your own.

I am inspired that you are making the student boycott your own. You are looking to 1968 in Paris, the 2011 Chilean student boycott, and 2012 in Quebec. You self-consciously organized the preceding campus meetings to follow Quebec, to be as democratic as possible, to give each of your classmates ownership.

But as I listened to you, I was and am fearful. During the Sept. 22 rally, my eyes followed one of you, a student of mine, as he spoke on the stage. Less than two years ago he was one of the silent ones in class. When did he grow so tall, so articulate? And where did that beard come from? As I watched him tremble with the rightness of his words, with the fury of the wronged — when he shouted that he would bring China to its knees — something clutched my heart with fear. At that moment I suddenly felt old, in a way that wrinkles and grey hair have not chilled me. When I was young, I too had many dreams. 

I am afraid for you. It is less a fear for your arrest, or bodily injury — although the police use of tear gas on Sunday, Sept. 28, has shown that perhaps I should fear this too. More than this, I am afraid of what happens when the world you hope to create does not come to be.

I wish it could be otherwise, and perhaps the outpouring of public outrage and support since Sunday’s violence will lead to what we both hope for: a more democratic and equitable Hong Kong. But I am fearful when I see the indifference — when a subway car playing footage of handcuffed students, arrested for civil disobedience, does not cause anyone to look up from their mobile phone. I was stricken when, on Sunday night when tear gas caught me blocks away from the protest, I looked up with stinging eyes to see swarms of people inside the Apple Store, furiously shopping. If these scenes make me despair — an American who is not a Hong Kong citizen or a permanent resident, what can it mean for you? I am afraid for your loss of faith. On Saturday the 27, a local friend who is a parent and a teacher wept as she wondered aloud why the students are leading. "Where are the grown-ups?" she asked. And I cried with her because I also don’t know what to do. But I wonder if the people you describe as unfeeling, if the parents you describe as too self-interested, if they too weep in the dark.

Against my fear, I see that you hope, so I hope for you as well. I am hopeful that you will learn better how to teach yourself and teach each other. You want to raise everyone’s consciousness, including your own. You write to me that the boycott will lead your classmates to "break out of the ordinary style of learning, it will cultivate a platform for political consciousness, and it will give us first-hand knowledge of what it is like to face-off against the violence of political power." This has turned out to be all too true; Hong Kong has been stunned by images of police in riot gear deploying pepper spray and tear gas, photos that have captured the attention of the world.  The paper stars you once suggested making have been replaced by goggles, face masks, and umbrellas      

I hope that you will better understand Hong Kong, even if it reveals many dark sides. You are disappointed that not all students boycott, but you join anyway. You realize there are barriers between the enthusiasm of the student leadership and the participation of the average student. You are heady with the idea that the student movement has set the wheels of the main protest group Occupy Central into motion, but you are clear-headed enough to know that divergence among various leaderships must be carefully negotiated. Even now, as students dressed in black stream towards the university’s subway station and middle-aged women hold up signs by the entrance condemning police violence, you are uncertain of a future course. Tonight, September 30, on the eve of the National Day holiday, you feel Hong Kong is at a turning point. 

If my fears lie in seeing you as too young, my hopes rest in your being able to stand on your own. In the past weeks you have taught me a great deal, and I know that you are not naive. My hope is one that you have expressed — that you will think about what you can do for Hong Kong — that this experience will enliven how you pursue your studies and your future. Not all of you must be activists, but I hope that you will be active, that the flame you carry today will illuminate your way.

<p class="MsoNormal"> Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor in the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She teaches undergraduate courses in Chinese history and contemporary China Studies to students from Hong Kong and all over the world. </p>